Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Aspen Glow

With Aspen Avionics’ multi-unit flight display, you can go all-glass on a budget

The last of the AeroShell Aerobatic Team T-6s lets out a sonorous belch as its propeller spins to a stop, and I walk up to its hefty wing to meet Gene McNeely, slot pilot for the team. He’s showing me the latest, seemingly incongruous addition to the team’s T-6s. There, in the front ’pit, is an Aspen Avionics Evolution EFD1000 PFD. Though such a seemingly delicate navigational instrument appears out of place on this snorting aerobatic airplane from WWII, I quickly find out that it has become an indispensable part of the team.

“I fly to 25 air shows a year and log about 250 hours on average each year. If I’m scheduled to fly an air show, I have to be there,” says McNeely. “We file IFR, and the Aspen has made IFR flying a dream. It has changed how we fly.” McNeely and the rest of the team use the unit for en route navigation and instrument approaches. “The flight director of the Aspen unit is connected to our Garmin MX20, our MX80 and our S-Tec autopilot,” adds McNeely.

Aspen Avionics has led the retrofit revolution since it began turning out innovative and affordable general aviation cockpit displays from its Albuquerque location in 2005. The company’s flagship product is its Evolution glass cockpit system. For under $6,000, a pilot can replace the “six-pack” flight instruments with a slide-in, modular PFD that increases situational awareness to an amazing degree. Simple software upgrades add new features to the unit, making it future-proof, while the capability of the Evolution series is nothing short of phenomenal.

But the real news is the way Aspen has expanded its display systems to work together in multiunit clusters to provide all the capability of large glass cockpit systems in a more compact footprint. In fact, the new Evolution multiunit displays—featuring the recently certified EFD500 MFD and EFD1000 MFD—offer even more features than some of the “big-box” competitors, all in a more affordable and easily upgradable product. It’s all about modularity.

By combining different slide-in units, a full-spectrum total glass cockpit is within the reach of just about any GA airplane. The units fit into standard three-inch holes in the instrument panel and are designed to work with existing GPS units, autopilots and flight directors. Through the modular units, the system’s basic functionality can be enhanced with features like terrain information, traffic, weather, full IFR capability and a lot more. A convenient and well-placed data port on the front of the unit makes software upgrades a no-headache affair.

Aspen’s Evolution 2500 package is an example of the company’s new multi-unit retrofit approach. The 2500 “system” couples three Evolution units to put a huge display area in front of the pilot, with just about anything imaginable only a few button strokes away. It combines the 1000 Pro PFD (which adds full IFR capability to the basic EFD1000 PFD), the EFD1000 MFD and the 500 MFD to deliver what Aspen calls its “total glass cockpit solution.”

Scott Smith is a regional sales manager for Aspen Avionics and flies his 2002 Cirrus SR22 for both work and fun. He has a “three-display” Evolution setup in his immaculate airplane, and I was fortunate to meet him for some flying fun, also an opportunity to see how the triple-unit combination works in real life. In fact, the gray and gloomy Florida day would be a perfect stage to see what the Aspen system could do.

“One of the main things about this unit,” Smith said as we settled into the cockpit, “is that your whole scan is right there. It’s all in front of you.” Smith added that it eases the workload during IFR operations because it shows everything the pilot needs. “All the information for the approach is on one display,” he said. I noticed that Smith configured his three-unit display slightly different than the Evolution 2500 package. His Cirrus had two EFD1000s (an EFD1000 Pro MFD and EFD1000 MFD) and a single EFD500 MFD. Pilots can mix and match, as they prefer.

During run-up, Smith explained some of the other big draws of the multidisplay idea. “You get dual everything,” he added. With a multidisplay setup, pilots get dual independent AHRS, air-data computers, compass systems and HSIs. Aspen also has an exclusive feature it calls DuoSafe redundancy: If your PFD fails, you simply press the “REV” (revisionary) button on the EFD1000 MFD, and it instantly becomes your PFD and still part of your instrument scan. The feature is designed to eliminate confusion during a unit failure and to make the situation easier to handle.


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